I love shopping — in good times and bad, it has always been there for me. Whether it’s a big-ticket item at the end of a long period of saving or a pair of press-on nails from the drugstore when I stop by to pick up a prescription, the purchases big and small along the way in my life have always been a form of self-care.
Being a shopper is woven into my family’s fabric. We’re firm believers in the mantra “look good, feel good” and believe this applies to our surroundings too. I remember when my mom would sometimes just drive us to HomeGoods to peruse and buy a new vase or tablecloth.
Then, 4 years ago, I was diagnosed with endometriosis, and our shopping habits changed. I couldn’t do long hours at our favorite department stores anymore, so naturally I took to online shopping. Soon packages piled up on the front step, a familiar mix of splurges and little treats, became the new normal.
When precautions around COVID-19 were recommended, I had just placed an order for a pair of shoes I’d been coveting for years. When they arrived, they sat in our front hallway all day. I opened them only before I was about to jump in the shower.
I’ve spent hours with my family, reading about how to safely open mail and deliveries and how long the disease could last on what surfaces. But more than that, we’ve also started considering the human toll of our deliveries.
Going this entire pandemic without any retail therapy seems like an impossible feat. So what’s a shopaholic to do when they need the rush of that “your order has shipped” email, without the problematic weight of contributing to an already broken and oppressive system?
Finding a balance of supporting local businesses that were suffering and staying ethical when shopping felt tricky.
So I talked to three small-business owners I know: Brooke Haffey of Rise Floral; Erica Feldmann, head witch in charge at HausWitch; and Tara Cenabre, boudoir photographer at Apothecary of Light. Combining their insights with my expertise as an Olympic shopper who has had to adapt before, I to put together a guide to shopping ethically in these trying times.
Feldmann, who runs a brick-and-mortar retail shop in Salem, Massachusetts, says she’s been happy to continue working with her vendors who are also small businesses. Her online store continues to sell items, helping her pay her staff and herself, which she says is her priority. “Community is so important right now,” she says, “and [it is] truly what will get us all through this.”
And by shopping with independently owned and operated shops and retailers, as opposed to chains or larger franchises, she can continue to support other individuals like herself.
“People are still placing orders through my online shop, so I’m trying to pay that forward by buying myself some creature comforts from other small indie stores and commissioning artists to create things for my brand behind the scenes to keep resources and energy flowing.”
What’s considered a small business?
“Small business” can mean the mom-and-pop grocer that you source your produce from, the indie boutique that sells all your favorite handcrafted goods, or smaller national retailers that don’t have large franchise chains or exorbitant funding.
In these trying times, think about those who were hit hardest: Business owners who don’t have the backing or staff to sustain themselves but who deliver ethically sourced goods and services to their customers.
Feldmann also recommends sticking to small indie stores for creature comforts. If you’re craving a new candle or a piece of artwork, try to source it directly through a small business.
“Since I’m a witch, I believe very strongly in the energetics of things. If you can afford it, I think it’s a great abundance practice to spend money in direct support of other humans right now,” she says.
First, there’s the matter of defining what’s considered a justifiable nonessential, which is going to look different for everyone. There are, no doubt, things you’re going to want to buy that you don’t really need to survive but that might make this period a little easier. Those “be kind to yourself” purchases are OK as long as you’re being thoughtful about how you’re making them.
The test I’m using is “Is it fair to ask a delivery person to bring this to my house right now?” This means I’m forgoing certain shopping indulgences, like a handbag, while allowing myself to stay stocked up on my favorite lipstick and lotion, as well as a sweater or dress here or there that I might wear while I’m isolating or on a drive around the neighborhood.
And when I am buying something nonessential, I’m doing so in moderation. I bundle orders with others in my household to limit the impact on delivery workers and those working to package and ship goods from the warehouses.
“I think if you can go without a nonessential item right now, do. Especially with most being ordered online from big companies who have many delivery drivers and warehouse workers at risk,” says Haffey.
There are, of course, some things that can’t be sourced through independent retailers. I buy my skin care, for example, through a high-end international retailer. It’s the only one that works for my skin. And as I’m sure you can all understand, when it comes to skin care, when you find something that works, you stick with it. So I was overjoyed to see that the company was directing some of its manufacturing efforts to produce PPE.
“Do your research! Read more about the business you support and ask questions,” Haffey says.
1. Research how businesses treat their employees well
Lots of companies and stores are including information about how they’re managing COVID-19 on their websites or social media, being transparent about layoffs or delivery delays.
“If you want to purchase a nonessential item just to bring yourself a little joy during these times, go small and ask the business about their process right now,” says Haffey. “Are they limiting orders to limit quantity of workers at a time and taking necessary precautions like masks and gloves? Ask for doorstep delivery so that the driver is not in contact with others.”
My sister and I are big Catbird shoppers — it’s a small NYC-based jewelry store that has kept its staff on payroll for as long as possible. Since they were transparent about the process with their shoppers, I feel good about continuing to give them my business when this is over.
What to ask or research:
- Are they providing extra pay, gear, or other forms of support for their workers during this time?
- Did their higher-ups take pay cuts so they could continue to pay their workers?
- What did they do or how did they try to help their employees before instituting layoffs and furloughs?
2. Keep up with how businesses are keeping the community safe
Then there are brands like Lord Jones, which makes my absolute favorite CBD products. They’ve been sending their lotions to frontline healthcare workers to help manage some of the friction and stress of long days in masks and other forms of irritating protective gear.
Similarly, I was thrilled to see high-end online retailer Net-a-Porter shuttering their business for delivery. I can guarantee absolutely no one needs to be further burdening delivery workers and risking spread in the community to have a Burberry dress.
Meanwhile, popular clothing rental service Rent-the-Runway is being called out by both current and former employees for forcing workers to endure unsafe working conditions.
What to ask or research:
- Are they helping to provide PPE or manufacturing hand sanitizer, as many perfume and skin care brands are?
- Did they take advantage of the stimulus money when they could have done without, taking it from smaller businesses that were actually in need?
- What did they do for their local communities?
3. Stay up-to-date on the news by following these accounts
Don’t be afraid to interrogate the brands you shop from by asking them directly for answers. There may be times when brands do the opposite of what they’ve announced (Sephora being a recent example). You can also follow these sites and social media accounts who track of how transparent companies are, such as:
- Worker Rights Consortium and Retail Dive (for fashion and retail industry)
- Estee Laundry (for beauty brands)
- Grocery Dive (for major food retailers)
And as always, whenever possible, avoid Amazon like the f*cking plague (no pun intended). Whenever I’m shopping and I find something I need or want on Amazon, I try to track it down elsewhere, either directly from the brand or manufacturer or through a more ethical retailer. Usually a quick Google search for the item (like using reverse image search) gets this job done.
Haffey, who runs California-based floral design company Rise Floral, has taken a significant hit to her business. The 6-month wedding season between May and October has been rendered essentially nonexistent for the foreseeable months, which could mean the loss of an entire season’s income.
The ever-changing pandemic landscape has forced her to adapt her business model to smaller doorstep deliveries. And she says she’ll likely be continuing that practice when this is all over.
“Doing these small orders has been so refreshing. I love how I can create without design pressure. It’s also helped me feel really connected to my community, brightening people’s days with flowers and meeting new faces from a distance,” she says. “So this might be sticking around for the future!”
Cenabre, a boudoir photographer, says her business has been essentially shut down because in-studio sessions are impossible. Her work has come entirely to a halt, as it’s impossible to know when it will be safe to shoot in-person portraits again. Still, she’s being creative about continuing work in these physically distant times.
“I am currently looking into webcam portrait sessions as an added service. If it works, I may end up keeping it as a service even after this is all over,” she says.
Every once in a while, I feel a little guilt about my shopping habits. I understand there’s privilege baked into the ability to buy things just because they make me feel good. But because I am a chronically ill person, there are few things I can engage in as easily or as pain-free as shopping and that bring me as much affirmation, and I know I’m not alone.
As a seasoned shopper, my best advice — from both my lifelong indulgence in this habit and some reflection I’ve taken since COVID-19 — is to educate yourself. Know how the founders of your favorite brands treat their employees and the world. Shop local when you can. And when you can’t or you want something from a big brand, avoid ordering through retailers like Amazon.
When it comes to what to buy, consider what you needed most during this time. Consider the comforts you’re reaching for: Is it a new dress to wear around the house or a new shade of lipstick to take selfies with? Maybe a stack of books to burn through during isolation? Gearing your nonessential purchases to things that will enrich your life will go a long way right now.
Caroline Reilly is a Boston-based reproductive justice advocate, writer, and law student. You can find her work on the Washington Post, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media, and Rewire.News, where she writes about medical misogyny, sexual violence, abortion access, and more. Find her on Twitter.